Why I Left McKinsey, Part 1

This is my 2 article series on why I left McKinsey.

One of the most frequent questions that I get is why I left McKinsey. Until now, I’ve been hesitant to address this in-depth – mostly because I didn’t feel it was relevant for what I was doing with Management Consulted, but also because I didn’t want to be perceived as a naysayer.

However, I think my story has valuable lessons for people entering the field, and for those that are currently working at a top firm.

In article #1, I’ll explain why I left and dive into what I perceive to be McKinsey (and generally speaking, the consulting industry’s) shortcomings for me personally. That’s important to keep in mind.

In article #2, I’ll dig into why I loved working there and the general benefits of a management consulting background.

I enjoyed my time at McKinsey, and wouldn’t have done it any differently. I actually tried leaving the company earlier than I did, but am glad in hindsight that I was persuaded against it.

There were 3 main reasons why I left – my entrepreneurial bug, a lack of interaction with customers/end users, and the service-oriented nature of the business.

Let’s dig into each of these.

1. An entrepreneurial bug

The interesting thing is that in school, I didn’t consider myself entrepreneurial. There were several half-assed attempts to start the occasional student group or business idea which never got far.

Instead, I was very much an “organization guy” – spending years at various organizations to achieve leadership positions in everything from SURJ (an undergraduate research publication) to student government.

I think a lot of people in life figure out what they want to do as a series of “anti-experiences”. In my case, working at several big companies (Google, Credit Suisse, McKinsey) taught me that I definitively did not want to work at a big company as a long-term career.

There were both mature reasons for that (the slow pace, the inefficient work processes, the lack of created value going into my own pocket) as well as immature reasons (having the occasional uninspiring boss, the 7am wake up times, the business casual dress code).

Regardless, my “anti-experiences” convinced me to start a company. That’s how I caught the entrepreneurial bug.

Oh, it also didn’t hurt that I loved technology, and in particular, the web. I wrote my first HTML website in 6th grade, and would often stay up at night reading HTML training manuals (don’t mention this to my future girlfriend).

2. Lack of consumer focus

Management consulting is at its core B2B. It may touch consumers indirectly (for example, when you’re consulting for a large consumer-packaged goods company), but your primary focus is delivering value to other companies.

This in itself is not a bad thing, but my passion is in working with consumers…and in most projects, we rarely interacted with them, if at all.

On one project, we needed to understand the behavior of small and medium-sized businesses (in particular, restaurants) and their purchasing behavior – so we spent a lot of time interviewing restaurant owners and managers and talking about their customer experiences.

On another project, we were helping a large yellow-book advertising business streamline their debt collection practices – so we spent a lot of time analyzing call-center employees and their interaction with customers.

That’s about as close as I got.

3. Consulting is a service, not a product

I use these terms loosely, but the key distinction to me is whether the outcome is repetitive or incremental.

For example, a barber is in a service industry – each outcome (the completed haircut) is repetitive. Facebook is a product business – the “Newsfeed” feature that was released is incremental and builds upon the existing Facebook website.

Consulting at its core is a service business. Every project is in many ways a new beginning – you go through the same process to pitch potential clients, scope a project, recruit a team, and solve the problem(s).

The output is remarkably similar across projects – generally a mixture of Microsoft Word memos and Powerpoint decks of findings delivered in presentations to client executives.

In fact, a favorite partner of mine once said, “we’re masters at reinventing the wheel”.

In addition, because you are an advisor and not responsible for execution, sometimes your work may be totally ignored – a .ppt file stored in some company intranet folder to be referenced 5 years later when the new CEO asks for a review of strategic options (“Oh, I remember we hired McKinsey a long time ago…let me see if I can dig up their stuff”)

To be clear, this doesn’t mean that there aren’t incremental aspects of the business – many of which I touch upon below (such as the accumulated knowledge base, the client relationships, etc).

However, what I like about being in a product business is its primarily incremental nature – it’s like building your own house and then renovating it over time.

With consulting, I felt as if I were renting an apartment, decorating it to my tastes, and then moving on 6 months later to a new apartment only to begin the process again.

These are the 3 main reasons. Of course, there are small nits – sometimes, I felt like a kid running around acting like an adult – it was tough pretending I knew something about life insurance marketing when I’d been on the project only one week, sitting across from executives 15 years my senior who had spent their professional lives focused on the problem.

There are always the engagement managers who manage workload poorly, the clients who have unpredictable and poorly defined demands, etc

But these are all small problems that aren’t unique to consulting, and weren’t the main contributors for my exiting McKinsey and moving on to start a company.

Hope that helps clarify. Please see part 2 (when it’s out) for reasons why I loved McKinsey, and why I would do it all over again.

Anything I said not make sense? Anything you disagree with? Please comment below!

Thinking about leaving the management consulting field but unsure what’s next? A Power Half Hour will help you define what will be a great exit opportunity for you and how to achieve success in your next venture.

  • Dane

    This is very interesting. As someone who is just about to graduate, its great to find out the real reasons so many leave the big 3 after a few years. Looking forward to part 2!

  • Bhupendrasinh Thakre

    Really interesting to read your experience. In my case its little bit different as I started my career as Adviser and I Love it. My love to serve and utilize my knowledge in every day business gives me satisfaction, however things change everyday and its my perception. So I never thought its about Reinventing the Wheel, its about solving a jigsaw puzzle.

  • Joel

    Google –> Credit Suisse –> McKinsey –> Entrepreneurship!!! Kevin, What more can anyone ask for?

  • Thanks for sharing this story…

  • Anonymous

    Joel, definitely seems linear/sensible in retrospect, but it definitely required a lot of hard work and quite a bit of luck (although what role each had is hard for me to precisely determine :)

  • Anonymous

    Thanks Dane

  • Peter Liew

    Hello from China. Kavin, thanks for your article.

  • George

    As an ex-non-MBB strategy consultant turned tech entrepreneur, I completely agree with your points especially number 1 and 3. MBB is a great place to gain a few years of experience but never a good place to spend your whole life.

  • Ben

    Hi Kevin,

    Just wondering how you went from Google -> CS -> McKinsey. They seem pretty unrelated, did you do a MBA in between?

  • Sachinsharma77

    Nice story and interesting insights.

  • Bsrbsr_2001

    Thanks for the posting.
    No contradiction but just a very personal understanding: I think you can still take consulting as a product. Making something great (best of you could) and moving on to the next big challenge. You might have to start all over again. Just like Apple Inc.  making something great and moving on for a next bigger challenge. Keeping in mind one cannot ace every single challenge.

  • Maxim

    Wish you luck with your future endeavors! And keep you blog updated! :)

  • Lee

    MBB recruiting is pretty ridiculous in Asia. I was lucky enough to get an informational interview only to find out that the entire Tokyo office is either from an IVY league college or Tokyo Univ (the top school in Japan). It was pretty much the same when I knocked on doors of Korea (Seoul) office where all local graduate students were from Seoul National Univ (top school in Korea). Should I just not even think about getting into MBB in Japan/Korea? 

  • Johnj

    Hey, I was out in Korea several months ago and had a chance to spend some time with my friend who works at Mckinsey. The reality is that they do have their target brands of college however, If your resume has unique experience that are related to logical thinking skills or leadership skills and if possible obtaining a recommendation letters from MBB might help you overcome the obstacle of getting at list the first round interview. After getting into the first round, I believe everything else after that will be determined by how well you prepare for the interviews.

  • Ze

    MBB is also of much lower quality in Asia. The quality of MBB consultants is so much lower than their western counterparts

  • jennyrae

    Thanks for sharing the networking tip. What you shared is true across the board – name-dropping (through recommendations or in a cover letter) for an outsider are critical and you’re right – once you’re in the interview process, the playing field is very even.

  • Kirk WIlliams

    Very interesting read here. After several years with a McKinsey compeititor, I can definitely relate to your experiences.

  • Xiny

    I like this article so much–an introductory manual to undergraduates about the real spicy life in McKinsey, different from unreal and decorated rhetoric which is used to attract people who do not love this at all. From a intimate personal perspective, very insightful and helpful. Thanks!

  • ueberfliegernet

    LOL – feeling like a kid running around like an adult – I always felt like that. I always felt that consultant is a great job if you’re an experienced 40-50 year old (and that’s how McKinsey started out) but it was very stressful for a recent graduate

  • jennyrae

    We don’t know your background so we can simply say it is harder, but not impossible. How was your networking strategy at the time? Use the contact form at the top of the page to e-mail us if you’re still on the job hunt; we’d love to help.

  • McKinsey & Co in Australia are currently running a Diabetes Care (Research) Project on behalf of the Federal Government. I am a patient in that project. I don’t think that the Govt. should have appointed this company to do their job. My reasons are that: 1. they don’t understand how to Manage a diverse range of patients; 2. they are top-down in their “Cookie Cutter” approach; 3. they don’t have a documented Complaints Procedure; 4. they don’t have a clue as to hoe to really run a project of this kind. In my opinion it is just a farce to make a lot of money for the Consulting Firm

  • Amy

    The company I worked for recently hired a marketing consultant who came in and spent 2 days with the President.

    During the 2 days, the President gave him the 360 degree view of the company

    The last day, the Marketing Director for that company was invited to the meeting and the consultant started to list faults and churn out a list of ‘things to do’ without asking questions for the Marketing Director.

    The consultant’s first comment was, “we need to do a customer profile mapping”. Considering the company is 10 years old and is about to make 3M this year, the Marketing Director disagreed.

    What followed was an intense debate between the consultant and the director.

    The consultant after that stated that the brochure was too big and too detailed and they needed to make a sales flyer, something more sales oriented.

    Again, the Marketing Director disagreed,stating that it was not a big brochure (it is only 9 pages) and that it was actually a key component for its telemarketing department, it provided all the necessary information considering the company never advertised.

    Again, the consultant decided to go against the director and quite frankly, it wasn’t pretty.

    For the rest of the hour, it was like this.

    I felt bad for the Marketing Director, who was put in a corner defending herself. Whens he left the meeting, I thought she looked like she was beaten up.

    I don’t have any experience working with consultants but I found that the consultant was extremely unprofessional. I would even go so far to say that I suspect the President brought him in
    because it was his friend or something.

    But I ask you, is this normal practice for a consultant?

  • Guest

    Don’t be a consultant at the age when you needed consulting yourself

  • Kapil Bhardwaj

    Mod is absolutely right!

  • Scarlet Consultants

    I agreed that consultancy is not a product but when business
    man make their some worth in a market they lunch a product and promote them with the help of their services.

  • Sunny

    Hi Kevin,
    I’m a Senior currently at USC majoring in Business. I would love to get in touch with you to ask some questions about management consulting. If you can contact me as soon as possible, that would be great.

  • Sunny
  • Konman

    I think I know why many leave, if not you, as it is still evidenced here on your page. You *assume no one is reading what you write* and *only post the important stuff in bold*. Each time you *submit your work* you are telling yourself *no one is paying attention*.

  • Cecile Lal

    In the landscape of reasons for leaving, you are not bringing up the lifestyle (yeah, yeah, might be a worn out reason, but all-to-relevant nonetheless): the hours creeping crazily in the nights and in the weekends as well as the travels, take a real toll on any relationship one has, or is trying to have – after several years of mad toiling, one might turn around and wonder who they have become (and often still unable to have their parents understand what it is that they do and why they are never really available to listen and be present in the moment and why it is they make so much $$ – talk of identity questions…)

  • Foei N.

    I just left McK and found your article, exactly how I have been feeling lately!

  • tamal

    It cannot be a product as a product is managed post delivery as well where as consulting is one time show . Forget once delivered . Finally a product is covered by Indemnity as it touches brick mortar of the business. But Consulting is not covered by Indemnity as that May or may not be used . Consulting a service agreement and product is a purchase agreement as u buy a TV and Refrigerator .